Issue BriefsPublished on Jun 22, 2017
ballistic missiles,Defense,Doctrine,North Korea,Nuclear,PLA,SLBM,Submarines

India-Russia military-technical cooperation: Beyond commercial relations

The India-Russia military technical relationship has withstood the test of time. Despite strains since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the relationship has remained highly critical both in terms of the level of trust between the two states and the imperatives of sustaining a military-technical relationship to counter the growth of Chinese power. A more synergistic military-technical is possible, and Moscow and New Delhi must explore ways to consolidate their defence engagement. This brief analyses the challenges and opportunities in sustaining the military-technical relationship between India and Russia that transcends the buyer-seller dynamic.


This is the fourth part in a series of ORF briefs on 70 years of India-Russia ties.

Read the series ► India-Russia — 70 Years


India-Russia military-technical cooperation has come a long way since the early years of the Cold War. Notwithstanding the inherent merits of bilateral cooperation in this field, there are ultimately compelling factors to further strengthen the engagement.

This brief advances a two-level argument that is intricately linked to China. The first part analyses the necessity for India and Russia to forge a synergistic defence and military-technical cooperative relationship based on niche technologies. It surveys and analyses the opportunities and constraints that currently exist in the relationship. The real strength of the relationship is the depth of trust between Moscow and New Delhi, which contrasts with the vicissitudes of China-Russian defence cooperation. China looms large in the India-Russian military-technical relationship. Russian weapons ordered by China and India through the 1990s and 2000s sustained Russia’s defence industry. While India is heavily reliant on Russian weaponry, Russia is also dependent on Indian imports. One real constraint facing the India-Russia military-technical relationship is India’s inability to bring any significant comparative advantages in the equation. It also shows why and how the balance power in Asia should be a strong basis for the consolidation of the military-technical relationship. The accumulated trust between India and Russia over the decades reinforces the balance of power’s imperative. The growth of Chinese military power in recent years mandates that the India-Russia military-technical partnership serve as a check against potential Chinese expansionism and hegemony.

Indian Path-dependence and Russia’s Comparative Advantages: Opportunities and Constraints in Niche Weapons Technologies

Path-dependence provides an important, albeit partial explanation as to why India persists with a fairly robust military-technical relationship with Russia. At a general level, path-dependence explains why decisions made today are based on knowledge of the past. Decisions and choices are conditioned by history. More specifically, path-dependence is not simply ‘past dependence’; it can also narrow the scope of future action to the extent it constrains prospective choices and cements persistence.[1] India still has a large stock of Soviet-era weaponry in its inventory, and New Delhi added Russian weaponry to it in the 1990s and 2000s. Consequently, Russia is likely to remain the most dominant external defence supplier for India in the near future.

The Russian Military Industrial Complex (MIC) is still large but not as consequential as its Soviet predecessor. A reduction in Russia’s military industrial prestige is a result of its incapacity to produce high-standard or innovative weaponry. If anything, certain categories of weapons of the Russian MIC are spurred to a great degree by India’s contributions. Most existing Russian weapons systems are upgrades of earlier platforms. Indeed, in 1994 as Yevgeny Kuznetsov showed in his incisive analysis, the Soviet Union’s conventional weapons were most famous for their simplicity that were easily upgradable.

Moreover, as Kuznetsov argued,[2] while Russian military Research and Development (R&D) is successful in product development, its principal weakness lies in manufacturing technology.[3] Manufacturing technology involves factors of production, including efficiency, production, machining, and assembly lines. Compounding this problem is Rosoboronexport, which is the central defence contracting agency in Russia. Rosoboronexport’s defence supply practice entails sub-contracting weapon parts to myriad domestic weapons contractors. This makes it difficult to calculate life-cycle costs of weapons systems. Unfortunately, India too has internalised this practice to a certain degree.  On the other hand, Indian capacities in manufacturing technology, until at least the early 2000s were weak.[4] However, manufacturing in the civilian sector has picked up pace since and now accounts for at least 16-17 percent of India’s GDP, which is expected to increase to about 25 percent by 2025.[5] Russia can leverage some of the advances India has made in manufacturing technology particularly within the private sector.

Nevertheless, Russian defence equipment is still formidable in terms of performance and can match the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) weapons systems. For instance, the United States has a formidable cruise missile capability, yet Russia has managed to match the US in this domain. The recent performance of the Russian Kalibr (Caliber) cruise missile capability in the ongoing Syrian civil war visibly demonstrated this. The differences in NATO and Russian conventional armaments are only relative. The West has historically had a qualitative edge in certain sub-systems, such as military software and electronics, but overall Russian weapons platforms perform well, even if they have shorter shelf lives. Russia upgrades its weaponry every decade, whereas maintainability and durability of Western platforms is greater.  As one former senior Indian Air Force officer told this author a few years ago, Russian fighter jets are air worthy for 300 hours whereas American fighters can fly for 1,000 hours without need for maintenance and servicing. Moreover, the initial costs of a Russian fighter plane are lower than an American or European jet, yet the subsequent servicing and maintenance costs of Russian fighters, specifically, and armaments generally, tend to be higher. For instance, the serviceability rate of the SU-30 MKI multirole fighter jet stands at 60 percent, which means that only 60 out of a 100 jets of that category are air and combat worthy.[6]

However, Russia’s MIC is still a significant employer and the Indian market is important for the Russian MIC’s sustenance and solvency. India’s imports of Russian armaments have, ironically, enabled more dynamism and innovation in Russian military R&D. Demand from New Delhi has stimulated the Russian defence industry. India has synergised the military-technical relationship with Russia so that it can actually state its specific requirements for various weapons platforms ordered from Moscow, something that it has already started. These contributions include: the Talwar Class Frigates (Project 11356); contributions to the R&D of the BrahMos/Onyx/Yakhont, Club/Caliber, and Uran/Kh-35 missile systems; the Sea Serpent/Novella anti-submarine search and sighting system; and the Ka-31 AWACS helicopter. India’s greatest strength has been in making conceptual contributions to Russian weapon designs, tailored to Indian specifications. Indian conceptual strength has been in marrying its familiarity with Western weapons systems, especially through extensive contacts through joint exercises and manoeuvres with Western air forces and navies, with Russian weapons platforms. This experience has been invaluable to the extent that Russia today uses custom-built SU-30 MKIs in service in the Indian Air Force, largely because of India’s conceptual inputs in improving the design of the aircraft.[7]  Russia has made year-on-year increases since the 1990s in R&D in good measure due to India’s military orders from Moscow. China, on the other hand, has placed bulk orders within compressed timeframes and Chinese orders seldom contribute to qualitative improvements of Russian weapons designs per se.[8] China is disadvantaged in this respect, as opposed to India, because the latter has fairly amicable military-to-military relations with Western powers, in general, and with the US, in particular.

While India has had a longstanding quest to indigenise defence research, development and production, its domestic defence industry is yet to deliver optimally for the Indian armed services. India still suffers from a narrow scientific and engineering base, notwithstanding some outstanding accomplishments in indigenous development in niche areas such as space technology, where Russia has far greater experience. India’s defence industrial capacities have not matured to the point that the country can single-handedly develop all conventional weapons systems or contribute in consequential terms to R&D in India-Russia joint ventures. Further, New Delhi cannot hope to match China’s military expansion, which is extremely dynamic in its breadth and depth, and its military spending dwarfs India’s. Consequently, China has managed to indigenise defence research, development and production at a rate and scale that not only pales that of India, but critically reduces its import dependence on Russia.

Chinese gains are also the product of replicating or reverse-engineering Russian weapons designs and exporting them under Chinese nomenclature. Indeed, between 2004 and 2014, Russia ceased selling military hardware to China because of Beijing’s replication of Russian weapons systems, undercutting Moscow’s export earnings. The Chinese-built J11 is widely considered a clone of the SU-27/30. Beijing exports the J11 to countries such as Pakistan. The Chinese long-range YJ-18 cruise missile is believed to be a “partial” clone of the Russian Klub.[9] Moscow, however, resumed military sales in 2014 to Beijing following this hiatus in a bid to offset setbacks in its relations with the West following its intervention in Ukraine.  China agreed to protect the intellectual property of Russian weapons designs. Moscow’s resumption of military sales to China is a quest to complicate American military strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Tensions between Russia and the West, and sanctions imposed by the latter, have left Moscow with limited options but to revive its defence relationship with China.[10] The Chinese replication of Russian weapons systems and designs is not a problem that bedevils India’s military-technical relationship with Russia. New Delhi’s trustworthiness means that it has committed itself to protecting the intellectual property of Russian weapons systems and prevent diversion of these systems to third parties. Here, path-dependence works in the converse direction as Russia is highly dependent on Indian defence imports. New Delhi accounts for 30 percent of Russian defence exports. Therefore, the path-dependency is mutual.

Russian assistance has helped India address some of its incapabilities, which New Delhi would not have been able to achieve in the foreseeable future on its own accord. Russian assistance particularly in niche conventional technologies has helped India bridge or mitigate some of these problems.  It would take India an exhaustive period to completely indigenise its capabilities.

 Apart from conceptual contributions in shaping weapons design, India has a comparative advantage in military software. The BrahMos incorporates software developed by India, but Russia had contributed to the bulk of the BrahMos’ development. Herein lies the fundamental difficulty for New Delhi; it has little military technology to offer Moscow.

At the same time, the US, Europe, and Japan can provide serious competition to Russia’s share in the Indian defence market. Tokyo, for now, remains a distant entrant into the Indian defence market because of its self-imposed fetter on military sales to foreign buyers. However, this is changing, albeit glacially, as Japan and India have embarked on a strategic partnership since the mid-2000s. Consequently, Russia’s share in the Indian defence market could potentially shrink if the current trends persist. Russia has already lost contracts to supply India with heavy transport aircrafts to the US, and submarines to the French. Due to India’s historical reliance on Russian made tanks, artillery systems, fighter jets, Surface to Air missiles, naval platforms and so on, India will continue to look towards Russia for its military supplies for at least another decade and a half, limiting the extent to alternative suppliers can meet India’s needs.

India and Russia continue to work jointly on the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) concluded through an agreement that started in 2007. Russia has initiated work with India in the joint development of KA-226T attack helicopters, which will be manufactured in India. Most recently, India and Russia have concluded, under the Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA), for New Delhi’s purchase of Frigates and S-400 Air Defence Systems.[11] Notwithstanding continued Russian collaboration with India on the FGFA, there are some obstacles in this joint programme. Russia has not fully revealed or shared with India the problems and challenges it faces with the jet. Second, Russia has roped in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a joint partner in the FGFA programme. This move by Moscow undermines trust between Russia and India, as it implies that Russia is ready to collaborate with other states without consulting India. Moreover, Moscow supplies Kilo class submarines to Vietnam, but does not permit India to sell the jointly produced BrahMos cruise missile to Vietnam. This is borne out of the concern that Vietnam will use them against the Chinese, overlooking the fact that the Vietnamese could easily use the Kilo Class against China in the event of a Chinese-Vietnamese war. This only invites the question: can Russia be both a tactical partner of China and a strategic partner of India?

Additional challenges remain. They include Russia’s arbitrary decision to escalate prices, as was evident with the Indian Navy’s acquisition and refit of the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, now rechristened the INS Vikramaditiya. If Russia presumes that India is inextricably tethered to the Russian MIC, Moscow will undermine future efforts to consolidate the bilateral military-technical relationship with such practices. Moreover, after-sales maintenance from Moscow has not been optimum. The latest round of military-technical discussions held in March 2017, however, yielded some progress, where Russian representatives from defence corporations and the Russian Defence Ministry conceded that some technology transfer was indeed necessary to establish a more robust military-technical relationship.[12]

One high-ranking Russian official in 2016, intimately involved in India-Russia military-technical cooperation, quite tellingly observed about one critical area of defence cooperation: “Of course, it would be more beneficial to us to sell the submarines without transferring the technology, and then we would receive ‘hard’ cash. But the system has changed. Everyone wants access to reproduce the product, not to make one-off purchases. And we have to give that access, otherwise we will lose the market”.[13]

The real necessity arises in establishing a seamless web of design, and the manufacture and deployment of weapons system based on the best military technology. Investments in military technologies require a skilled labour force, a substantial machine tools industry and the necessary industrial accoutrements that can forge partnerships with a network of domestic and external suppliers. This, in turn, can produce new weaponry, rather than simply upgrade existing weapons platforms. This contrasts with the US and Europe, which have largely proven and consolidated capacities. However, as opposed to Europe and the US, India and Russia do not have the same opportunities or luxury, simply because they have been kept out of each other’s defence-industrial eco-system that exists in the West. This provides not only a unique opportunity for India and Russia to intensify the harmonisation of their own defence-industrial eco-system, but critically provides a basis for leveraging each other’s strengths.

The Asian Balance of Power: A Strategic Rationale for the Consolidation of Military-Technical Cooperation

During the Cold War, the rationale for Soviet-India’s arms transfers was primarily geopolitical. Moscow and New Delhi’s disputatious relationships with Beijing cemented a strategic concord between the Soviet Union and India.

Yet from an Indian perspective, it was equally commercial. As one Indian official remarked in the early 1980s: “We haven’t gone to the Russians as a matter of choice. Their stuff is damn cheap, and the U.S. made it impossible for us to do otherwise.”[14] This was one of the most crucial reasons for India forging a close defence relationship with the Soviets. In the post-Cold War era, India ceased to be a beneficiary of cheap or subsidised Soviet weaponry. While it is understandable why India is no longer a beneficiary of Soviet military subsidies brought about by the demise of the Soviet Union, India-Russia military-technical relations today stand at a precipice.  It is also comprehensible why Moscow currently seeks defence cooperation based more on commercial gains. However, it will in due course become unsustainable as India looks to other suppliers, whether in the form of purchases or through the transfer of technology. The Indian grievances with the inadequacies of Russia’s after-sales product support and insufficient technology transfer could potentially undermine future defence cooperation as new competitors enter the Indian defence market.

From that perspective, India cannot simply be viewed as a consumer market of Russian defence produce, but a critical strategic actor with whom Russia can foster and sustain a defence relationship that contributes to the balance of power in Asia. Importantly in this regard, if Moscow can resuscitate defence ties with Beijing, despite the latter’s military-industrial theft in a bid to counter-balance American presence in the Asia-Pacific, why can Moscow not seek to limit Beijing’s aims in the Indo-Pacific through a more synergistic military-technical relationship with India?

China’s relative power has grown and will continue to increase over the next decade, notwithstanding the recent slowdown in the Chinese economy. The balance of power serves as a reasonable strategic rationale, which will help place the India-Russia defence relationship on a more sound footing. As John Mearsheimer insightfully observed, “…the balance of power is largely synonymous with military power.”[15] Mearsheimer further elaborated that power in international politics must be defined in military terms, because, “…force is the ultima ratio.[16] India has an unresolved territorial dispute with China, where the potential for the use of force remains. New Delhi also must contend with the existence of a close strategic nexus between Pakistan and China. China’s naval expansion in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is another challenge that India must contend with. Herein lies an opportunity for India and Russia to forge a synergistic military-technical relationship, especially in strategic technologies such as nuclear submarine development, where Russian assistance is widely known. In missile and nuclear-related technologies, Russia is the only country from where India can source these capabilities, which are vital to the preservation of the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

The growth of Chinese power presents as much a challenge to Russia as it does to India, regardless of the current stability in Sino-Russian relations. In due course, however, the Moscow-Beijing entente could fray. Moscow, thus, should remain cautious about being excessively subservient to Beijing’s influence, pressures and more extreme diktats. These factors supply an additional incentive for India and Russia to cement a closer military-technical relationship. It will ultimately help transcend the buyer-seller dynamic pregnant in the current state of the defence relationship.

Within the current Asian strategic context, an India-Russia military-technical relationship can offset a Chinese hegemony, because a consolidated and stable military-technical relationship also gives both countries the capacity to militarily restrain China. A gradual corrosion in the military-technical relationship between India and Russia will potentially embolden China and could precipitate a war that India could very well lose. This will knock India out of the Asian balance of power and could lead to the establishment of Chinese primacy in the region.


It is possible to envisage that a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship can be developed between India and Russia around military-technical cooperation. When viewed through a strategic lens, a Russia-Indian compact through military-technical cooperation can help cement a stable Asian geostrategic equilibrium. At a more concrete policy level, India and Russia ought to do better to synergise their military-technical relationship. Both sides must identify where they enjoy a comparative advantage and leverage each other’s capacities for a closer military-technical compact.

There are two areas where India could make a significant contribution. One is by privileging the Russian position in the Indian defence market. This, however, ought to be conditional on the level of technology Russia transfers to Indian defence firms, whether public or private. In the event that Indian defence companies become beneficiaries of Russian military technology, New Delhi ought to cement an agreement mandating that any improvement on the transferred technology that Indian defence firms make be shared with Moscow. The second area where India should reinforce the military-technical relationship is by encouraging Indian private sector enterprises to invest more in the Russian defence industry. The deep trust that animates the India-Russia military-technical relationship provides a strong basis for future cooperation.


[1] George Shreyyog and Jorg Sydow, “Understanding Institutional and Organizational Path Dependencies”, in The Hidden Dynamics of Path Dependence: Institutions and Organizations, Jorg Sydow and Georg Schreyogg (eds.), (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 4-6

[2] Yevgeny Kuznetsov, “The Impact of the Military Industrial Complex on the Emerging Russian Development Strategy”, George Washington University, 1994, pp. 77-79,

[3] Ibid, p. 78

[4]“Indian Manufacturing Industry: Technology, Status and Prospects,” United Nations Industrial Development Organization,

[5] “Indian Manufacturing: Overview and Prospects”, India Brand Equity Foundation, 2012,

[6] “Russia offers maintenance, after sales support for defence”, India Today, March 29, 2016,

[7] Konstantin Makienko, “Military-Technical Cooperation Between Russia and India: Time for Radical Solutions,” in A New Era: India-Russia Ties in the 21st Century, (New Delhi and Moscow: Observer Research Foundation and Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 2015), pp. 33-42

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sebastian Roblin, “Why Russia Enemies Fear the Kalibr Cruise Missile,” The National Interest,  January 22, 2017,

[10] “Russia Resumes Advanced Weapons Sales to China”, Financial Times, November 3, 2016,

[11] “16th India-Russia Intergovernmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation Meeting,” Press Information Bureau, Government of India, October 26, 2016

[12] “Russian defence Companies keen on technology transfer, JVs with Indian firms,” The Economic Times, March 21, 2017,

[13] “Russia to Strengthen India’s Submarine Fleet,” Russia and India Report, June 21, 2016,

[14] Cited in June Kronholz, “Is India’s Romance with Russia Losing Its Thrill?,” The Wall Street Journal, June 14, 1982

[15] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2014), p. 56.

[16] Ibid.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.